All of our ancient parish churches contain war memorials, either inside the building or outside…such was the impact of the great war…the names had to be remembered….had to be honoured. There were so very many of them.
Nearly always those lost during the second world war have been added to them… but few since …although there have been enormous acts of heroism and lives sacrificed in more recent wars.
I have always been amazed at the losses sustained by small communities…often several members of the same family ….wealthy and poor, equal in sacrifice. Whatever your links with these memorials or your family’s personal stories and losses …do always look as you go by and wonder about those names when you see them and try to imagine some of those stories. Was the death heroic or mere tragedy…were they desperately tragic…like that of the poet Wilfred Owen who having been awarded the Military Cross was killed just a matter of days before the armistice was signed in 1918.
Certainly Each name represents a precious unique life, one we Christians believe is destined for union with God and each name reminds us…as it should…of at least two things…the brutality of war and of the dignity of sacrifice, the desperate need for peace.
How far back do your family stories go?…Many of us here have memories of the second world war. In my case waking up in an Anderson shelter, sleeping in the bottom drawer of a chest of drawers, being given a gas mask to play with so I wouldn’t be frightened if it was used for real………a grandfather who died of TB contracted in the wet and cold of the North Atlantic.
We grew up with shelters in our homes, gardens and schools…ration books,… concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil….remember it? And most of us without our fathers being around….….
You will each have your own story or if you are younger you will have your family story or maybe the trip to the military cemeteries of northern France or to Auschwitz organized by your teachers.
Or maybe you know that 456 servicemen and women died in Afghanistan alone… Their ages ranging between19 and 45…most being in their 20s and 30s.
From the trenches of the Somme, to the roar of spitfires over our land, from guarding our coast to the battle of the Atlantic, from the beaches of Normandy to the South Atlantic, from the Dambusters to Burma..Malaysia, Korea, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in many other places the men and women of our armed forces have represented you and me.
And now…rather than get better, things have got more confused. Civilians caught in the terror of Syria and the Yemen…the mess that is South Sudan to which so many of us have been committed over many years…and still this diocese supports with our medical aid and educational provision…..the sacrifice of individuals goes on from the midst of the chaos where it is not always clear who is friend or foe.
Lest we think it will leave us untouched. It is in very recent times that rhetoric from the States and here at home has sounded more like Germany in the 30s than England in the 21st century.
If we really honour these sacrifices, I think we will do two things…..we will live life to the full… not selfish lives but lives of service and gratitude… … embracing all those who need our help. We will work and pray for peace. We will cherish those who are close: those people God has given to us. We will give thanks for all those things which enrich our lives…. the beauty of the created world, the talents of those who delight us. I could go on….for these things I believe are God given.
…and we will not lose hope. We will live with our glasses half full. We will work untiringly for peace.
Hope is a Christian virtue…and why? Because if our God is real and if we dare believe that he loves us unconditionally all will be well.
St Paul said
…… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord
The answers and the fulfillment of all God’s promises are found in Jesus. Our deaths all find meaning in his death and our hopes, our striving, our concerns and our loves find fulfilment in his resurrection.
Remembering and retelling the story is part of any culture
Dare to wrap those stories into the Christian story
It is the story of Jesus. It is seeing the truth in his life and death and resurrection. The story which was told in our baptism, the story we reenact over the course of every year and the story we tell in the great Eucharistic prayer Sunday by Sunday…it is our story
Here our spiritual needs are met, here a better world begins. Here Hope for the future is opened up, based on faith in the promises of God, where a new and a better world is not an idle dream – but a matter of faith and love and courage. It is the consequence of our resolute determination that evil shall not triumph because in Jesus it has ultimately already been destroyed.
It is not for us to despair….
And it is in this light…God’s light… that we can find meaning for all our sacrifices.
Our stories must be about gratitude and they must be about love …..for bereavement is the cost of loving another human being…the pain is the reverse of the coin which is the most precious gift we can be given…the love of another person.
As Christians we see this reflected in the death of Jesus. As he stands with Pilate, it is Pilate who is on trial…it is his need to protect himself that is being judged. Jesus is not the helpless victim. In St John’s gospel in particular it is clear this is far from the truth. It is rather, that his death is his chosen path. He is in control throughout. He has power to lay down his life he says and power to take it up again.
And Jesus’ decision to walk the path of suffering and embrace death is precisely the source of his authority and his kingship. It is how he bears witness to the truth.
When we see on thousands of war memorials the names of the fallen beneath the words of Jesus, ‘Greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ we are face to face with the wish, that suffering can be given meaning by associating it with the purposeful death of Jesus….we are telling our story yet again.
Today pride and pain walk hand in hand. We would not be truly human if we did not remember with pain. We would not be good citizens if we did not remember with pride. But we bring our memories to the cross of the man who did not die in vain. And that changes everything.
We are not alone and though we are only too aware of all the evil in our world we know our God is not indifferent to it nor will let it triumph in the end
I end by taking you back to that reading from the book of Revelation
“God will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
…. that is our faith….